“This survival of the fittest…” – Herbert Spencer
By ‘fittest’, of course, the great English philosopher Herbert Spencer didn’t mean a human being that is in good physical shape – but, as the modern man does and will continue to do, we can easily interpret it to mean that in this very situation. With Sir Alex’s willingness to bring back his loanees, the likes of Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck among them, there is certainly competition and little room for error.
United are both blessed and spoilt with forward players at the same time; strength in depth is good if there is a clear system in how to utilise that ‘strength’ effectively. With so many at their disposal (including the main trio and others such as Bebe, Owen and Mame Diouf) it only makes for a situation in which an individual or two will be left rather displeased. Take Danny Welbeck for example. Having enjoyed a breakthrough season on loan at Sunderland, he has found comfort on both the flanks and in the middle, but an inevitable return to Old Trafford might only end in tears.
Welbeck’s case is a funny one. United must recall him, no question, but for a player with so much potential and raw talent, his development might be stifled if he is used as a bit part player. Indeed there is no better place for a player to develop than at Old Trafford under the useful guidance of Ferguson and co. but he can only go so far without a proper forum in which to showcase his abilities and capabilities. Whatever he might do, he’ll still find it difficult to budge any of Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov.
Perhaps, Welbeck has it easy. Perhaps. If, as promised, Diouf and Macheda return it does leave United in a situation that is not quite so ideal. Diouf doesn’t quite look part of the jigsaw; he has impressed to an extent at Blackburn Rovers despite a modest return of 6 goals in 26 and has won some over with his work rate and the fact that he does compliment Rovers’ system. He shouldn’t be regarded as an out-and-out goalscorer but it isn’t too much if you were to ask him to simply score more. By observation, his style of play is better suited to Blackburn rather than United. A loan renewal or selling him altogether is, regrettably, the best option.
Macheda, for all his talent, seems to give off the indication that he either plays regularly for the club or move on. He is still young at 19, but it is understandable to think that he is ready for top-flight football. A career in Italy probably best tickles his fancy. Depending on who you ask, his loan spell for Sampdoria hasn’t exactly reaped the rewards that manager Alberto Cavasin might have first envisaged. Should he leave? With even more regret, the answer is yes (unless he is persuaded to join an English team on loan). Competition would simply be far too fierce and survival might just elude him.
Michael Owen will get another year, it looks. He still has something to offer (beside the entertaining tweets) and the thinking is that Sir Alex will use him much like you’d imagine for any other 5th choice – not often. He’ll play the odd domestic cup game. His time is running out and has been plagued by injuries that has not allowed him to excel. The difference between Owen and Macheda is that the former might accept his role as a cameo player. Macheda won’t. At his age, he’ll need games and you just don’t see that happening at Old Trafford. And Bebe? Having just played a handful of games, his United career would, you’d think, be prolonged at least another season. He will surely loaned out elsewhere but you feel that his fate is sealed too.
It is a touch pessimistic to write off the careers of a few individuals who do have great potential, but there looks to be little room for them all. And if it does so happen that all are kept at Old Trafford, it will create an unnecessary headache that could be avoided and frustrated egos will be brimming to the top. Even the best have to make sacrifices.
While he’s chewing his gum, he’s constantly thinking. Thinking. Thinking. He’s got things on his mind; the next substitution, the opposition’s tactics. “Doesn’t Darron Gibson look a bit like that guy off Snow Patrol?” He’s then mulling over whether his 4-4-2 was really the way forward for such a fixture; directing Wayne to the left flank…planning ways to exact revenge at Mike Phelan after that infamous Facebook prank.
For Sir Alex, life is never so simple. Thoughts ravage his cerebrum for as much as it can endure. Problems arise; he’ll usually deal with them. Well, most of the time.
He has a new, fresh conundrum to face and that’s deciding how to utilise the talents of Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney correctly. However, others would be envious of Sir Alex’s latest conundrum rather than feeling sorry for him; this head-scratcher is a good problem to have and such strength up front is one to be resented. But back to the question – how does Sir Alex utilise the trio and can he do so effectively?
Hernandez, such a revelation for United this season that not even the optimist of all optimists could foresee such consistency, has started most games of late and has created an excellent understanding with Wayne Rooney. Unfair on Berbatov, you might think, considering he is the favourite to land the golden boot this season. But Hernandez has settled in quickly and has been similarly clinical. It’s difficult to quite put into words of the impact he’s had thus far – get this, 10 out of 14 of his attempts on target in the Premier League have found the back of the net.
<figure 1> The diagram above gives the impression of the type of player Hernandez is – a ‘poacher’. It’s encouraging, and so far his predatory instincts in the box have earned comparisons to Ruud van Nistelrooy. But he’s more than just a poacher. 4 of Javier Hernadez’s ten goals have come from his head. It’s not about length in his case that is the reason behind his success in the air; it’s all about movement (and positional awareness.) What separates him from past poachers (the type which are nowadays regarded as ’extinct’) is his great pace and ability to drop deep.
Pitch Diagram via the official Premier League website
But Berbatov has an extended case consisting of not just his remarkable goal tally. You could argue, as I would personally, that the partnership of Rooney and the Bulgarian is slightly more effective than the Rooney-Hernandez. Like the Mexican, Berbatov is playing higher while Rooney drops deep – if this wasn’t the case, perhaps Berbatov would not have scored as many goals. A further argument would be that the former Leverkusen man can drop elsewhere and alternate with his partner and link up play as successfully as he does. That’s just by observation, of course, but what is certain is that for either to get a place in the starting line up, they must simply get the best out of Rooney. Love him or loathe him, it is the Englishman that the team is partly built around.
The days of Rooney scoring 34 goals a season are over – for now. His real position is that of a no.10, the one he is playing as currently. He likes to roam like his fellow trequartista’s; he is for Manchester United what Francesco Totti was to Roma (no pun intended). Perhaps this is where the problem lies; both Hernandez and Berbatov compliment his type so well that choosing between the two is one problem has no consensus and no solution. You can’t play all three, can you?
Hypothetically, you could. But that would be a risk which could backfire purely because there would be no real structure. Having posed a question on Twitter about our strike force, one suggested that United experiment with this very shape.
If Rooney was to play in his trequartista role with the two forwards ahead of him, questions will be of the capabilities of United’s midfield. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick might be able to do the job defensively, but that would leave a huge gap in the centre of the park and Darren Fletcher as central midfielder would be far too ambitious as United will then be up against it when the opposition have the ball in the final third. So you can scratch that one off.
In United’s most recent game against Bolton, it was Berbatov who had scored the winner in a game heading for a 0-0 draw; and it should be noted that he did replace Javier Hernandez straight after half time. In that game, going against the couple that preceded it, Hernandez was starved of action and was quite forlorn. Part of that could be put down to the midfield who had struggled to create in the opening 45 but what could happen now is that Berbatov’s goal could just mean that he will start for the Red Devils’ in their next game. Certainly, there is little room for error. It seems that Sir Alex has made his mind up – that he would rotate between Hernandez and Berbatov to partner Rooney.
Rotation is the correct policy. What’s more, the approach seems to work. There is always going to be a division in opinion, and even if you could make a really good case for an individual it should be recognised that the other could also make an equally good case on the pitch. It’s all about competition, and here at Old Trafford, it’s fierce. The decision of who starts is the interpretation of the manager, conceived by his observation. And that approach couldn’t be any more correct.
The divide in opinion
Having asked what others think on Twitter about the situation, the responses received were interesting; not least because it did give a sense that the opinion of an individual isn’t particularly shared by another. Below, I try to respond to some of the suggestions I received.
FiveCantonas: “Rooney and Hernandez against big teams, Berbatov and Rooney against fast teams (to over simplify).”
jonssonmufc: “I think it all depends on who we are up against. In a game we are supposed to be by far the better team, Berba/Roo should start.”
WayneH7: “Berba would my no 1 all the time, build the team around him. He needs to play all the time, he’s our best striker.”
The opinions of the above seem to suggest conflicting views. Two talk of how the duopoly (if we can call it that) of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov is perhaps better suited against teams of lower status; while ‘WayneH7’ believes Berbatov must be a permanent fixture in the side. Neither point is quite conclusive. As I had concluded in the article, it’s all interpretational and observational – and looking at these tweets I find myself strangely agreeing, nodding. You see, no matter who partners whom it’s one of those when you simply ‘don’t mind’.
Manchester Utd 1-0 Bolton: Analysis, Observations
It’s become something of a well-worn cliché, but they say that the true sign of a title-winning team is not just their ability to win games that they have dominated throughout, but to win those that they didn’t necessarily deserve either. On 18 different occasions, that has certainly rang true and proved decisive in Manchester United’s case every time they have won the League.
Here, at Old Trafford, we see it again. This hard-thought 1-0 victory over a stubborn Bolton Wanderers isn’t a game that is worth remembering for the football on display, rather what the result represents for United’s championship with rivals Arsenal dropping points on the same day.
Carrick and Rooney impress again. Both Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney have had their fair share of criticisms this season, but both continued their run of great form of late with an assured performance worthy of most of the superlatives in the book. Carrick’s contribution mustn’t be undervalued – as his shift defensively was crucial. Especially, when the Red Devils went ten men down.
Wayne Rooney is thriving as a trequartista. He started off playing just behind Javier Hernandez and although is strike partner did not quite enjoy as much success; Rooney was a danger for the duration of this. Especially in the first half hour when his teammates looked a touch sluggish and out of sorts. He played well in this position against both Marseille and Arsenal in previous games, but it is difficult to imagine how long he’ll play there. However, with the return of Antonio Valencia, we might just see the rebirth of the 4-2-3-1, a formation which Rooney has found much enjoyment in the past, and so he may continue to play in this position. Still, it must be noted slightly higher up the pitch.
Jonny Evans – the good.
<Figure 1> As the chalkboard above shows, Evans was excellent defensively and consistently won duels in the air and stifled any threat from Bolton. In the absence of United’s ‘no-nonsense’ centre-backs Ferdinand and Vidic, he put in a decent shift and could have reflected on a good day’s work had that moment of madness not happened.
From Guardian Chalkboards
Jonny Evans – the not so good. Then there was his challenge on Stuart Holden. It was a straight red, no doubt, and he will now miss the next three games. With all the defensive problems facing Manchester United (Wes Brown also went off injured), it is perhaps a tad surprising to say this but the international break could not have come at a better time.
Bolton started daringly. The visitors were positive in their play, and had United on the backfoot in the first 45 which brought about the two changes at half time which included the scorer of the eventual winner Dimitar Berbatov. The result is pleasing; Bolton, worthy of a top table finish, are no longer pushovers and the days of beating them 4-0 are long over. Yet, the overall performance was concerning. United lacked cutting edge against a battling side who probably did deserve a 0-0. When the hosts finally cranked it up, they defended as if they had riot shields and batons. Credit to them where it’s due
The Report Card. Behaviour is no issue in this grading system, so Evans’ red has no implications on his resulting mark. Indeed, the grades are made solely out of observation of their performances.
Van der Sar C; Wes Brown C, Chris Smalling C, Jonny Evans B, Patrice Evra C; Antonio Valencia D, Michael Carrick B, Ryan Giggs C, Nani D; Wayne Rooney B+; Javier Hernandez C
Welcome to the twelth issue of The Red Report, the round table discussion of all things Manchester United by your favourite United blogs: The Busby Way, Stretford-End, Bangalore To Old Trafford, ManUtd24, United Youth, Red Flag Flying High and Red Force Rising.
After a brief absence we’re back and with a new contributor! Fergie, Scholes, our fans and the player of the year are all on the agenda…
Sir Alex has been criticised lately and charged by the FA for his comments about referee Martin Atkinson. How do you think Fergie handles the media and should he be able to speak his mind?
Chudi | The Busby Way: I’m in two minds with this as it can be detrimental at times but at other times it can be beneficial. People kicked up a fuss about the blackout but had SAF came out and said what he felt following the Liverpool game we could be looking at more than a 5 game touchline ban with all the decisions Dowd missed.
In regards to being allowed to say what you feel, you should be able to but within reason. At our club, in football and in the world in general nobody is above being criticised but it appears the second you express displeasure at some of the referee’s decisions your liable to be hung drawn and quartered!
Herzog’s Child | Stretford-End: Ideally, managers and players would be allowed to tell the truth when discussing topics after matches. There is, however, a simple problem: harsh criticism of referees, whether merited or not, can undermine them – which puts them in a fairly precarious position for the next match they officiate in. Extensive criticism is a dangerous exercise; it ensures the next referee’s performance will be subjected to intense scrutiny, and, as a result, conspiracy theorists will be provided with ample ammo should something go wrong. Silence from their side is a detriment, and would, if reversed, lead to less public criticism of them, I reckon. I’m fully supportive of referees coming out after games and discussing their actions. Honesty is always the first casualty in all conflict. The advent of it would clean up the game. Managers, players, refs, chairmen, the F.A. – there’s a huge lack of honesty, and the game suffers greatly as a result.
Personally, didn’t see a whole lot wrong with Fergie’s sentiments after Chelsea. Atkinson got several key decisions terribly wrong. Again. Most criticism subjected to referees is merited, you’ll find – but if we’re honest, I think most will agree that Fergie should have known better. He’s in the game long enough now to know what’s allowed and what isn’t. It doesn’t help either that there’s strong hypocrisy in his grievances. He attempted to shrug off Rooney’s elbow as mere slight contact, but then, a few days later, he recoiled in indignation after Luiz was not sent off. He can’t have it both ways, even if his intentions are right. It grates a little when he espouses about the lack of leeway for truth within the game, when he, of all people, is one of the most consistent blatant bluffers.
Should he be allowed to tell the truth? In a sense, yes. But there’s a way of doing it. Disappointment can be emphasised without personal criticism. Creating a siege mentality is fine – but applying severe pressure to refs in particular could have the reverse effect: they may not, as a result, look upon us favourably in future games. Look, the rule is there – and it’s not too difficult to live by it, even if it’s a bloody silly one. I’m personally not a huge fan of the after-match interview, anyway – so soon after a game, a manager can be frustrated, angry, and can say things in the heat of the moment. Sadly, this is not recognised by the powers which enforce the ruling, so you’re left with comments being said that they will be forced to take action against. Later interview should suffice.
Justin| Red Flag Flying High: I think he’s got the right idea in creating a siege mentality at United with the press. The whole “us against them” idea has always seemed to have been around during Fergie’s reign and I don’t see the harm in it. No matter what United do, the FA and the press don’t offer any real support. Take the world cup bid years ago when United dropped out of the FA Cup to play in that meaningless tournament in Brazil, because the FA thought it would help England’s hosting chances.
No one gave us any credit and the press vilified us so I think Fergie should carry on treating the press with the same way he always has, speaking his mind. Touchline bans and fines are overblown and have little or no real effect on what happens on the pitch anyway.
Siddarth | Bangalore to Old Trafford: Sir Alex’s method of handling the press is rather brutal than required, but after the kind of refereeing that was seen in our match against Chelsea, it deserved a reaction like that! I do agree what Sir Alex said goes against the respect campaign, and he has been properly punished, maybe a bit harshly. But I think Martin Atkinson should also be taken to task for one of the worst refereeing performances I have ever seen! The media meanwhile is its usual self, hypocritical vultures, just waiting for a chance to denounce the club! Just can’t do anything about it, we have to live with it!
TG | ManUtd24: The way he handles the press isn’t one for other managers to aspire to, to be brutally honest. Does he have to say what he thinks if he knows the consequences? He can express his opinion, but he must know his limits. I don’t think his recent comments on referee’s and Martin Atkinson were ideal – and I personally think that his five match suspension was, ultimately, the correct decision. Sorry! As for the FA and the media, you can’t blame them. The FA acted correctly and the media, as annoying as they may seem, are like predators waiting to seize on every opportunity. That’s just how it goes, unfortunately.
Nick | United Youth: On the one hand, some of the grudges and the black-outs and silences and somewhat fatuous complaints about officials (Wiley for example, an obvious case of conjuring something to complain about to deflect from a poor performance) are a little embarrassing and unbecoming. On the other, I sort of admire his refusal to kowtow to the press in certain aspects. Post-match interviews in particular are a joke concept – thrusting a microphone under a manager’s nose in the heat of the moment and often almost explicitly trying to get them to talk themselves into trouble is ridiculous. While he went too far in questioning Atkinson’s fairness, I can’t blame him for being extremely angry in the wake of what was obviously an utterly inept refereeing display.
Should he say what he thinks? If he wants to stay out of trouble, obviously not. I’d like to see him answer all post-match interview questions with bland answers and ‘no comment’, just to expose them as the terrible idea they are. There have been complaints from the media that by not speaking, he’s depriving the fans somehow – personally I’m not that bothered whether he speaks to us immediately after games and think the media are being somewhat insincere and far more concerned about having to do more actual work with the lack of juicy quotes or ready-made ‘SAF lashes out’ stories.
Potentially the problem here lies in the post-match interview. Maybe the manager’s should only do it having been able to see highlights of the game?
Michael Carrick isn’t Mr Popular any more – but his performance for Manchester United in their 2-1 victory over Marseille on Tuesday night was more than encouraging. Below is a breakdown of his 90 minutes; looking at his passing distribution, his positional discipline and another asset of his game that goes largely unnoticed – the distances he can cover.
1. Passing remains the key asset of his game
<Figure 1> Manchester United did struggle in parts at Old Trafford but, at times, their midfield was excellent with the ball. Wayne Rooney was instrumental, and was complimented well by the two central midfielders, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Carrick’s chalkboard on the left is impressive; what you can immediately interpret is his willingness to release the wingers, as shown by the many diagonal arrows to the side of the pitch.
<Figure 2> Much has been spoken of how Carrick is suited to the three-man midfield; but with Fletcher absent, his only central partner was Paul Scholes. He thrived alongside him, as shown by the passing distribution (the highest in the match) between the two above. Carrick also linked up well with Chris Smalling.
2. The Short, Back and Sides Myth
The Carrick ‘only passes short, backwards and sidewards’ criticisms are simply inconclusive and rather narrow-minded. First of all, it is absolutely necessary in the modern game that a team has possession – passing the ball back to defenders and making short passes to your team mate is crucial in order to start moves. And, judging by the chalkboard at the very above, he does in the forward direction several times.
<Figure 3> As for those arguing that he only makes short passes, they can be proved wrong by this table. Carrick made four successful ‘long’ passes (out of seven) and 30 successful ‘medium’ range (by uefa.com definition) passes here at Old Trafford.
Medium-range Passing statistics courtesy of uefa.com
3. Disciplined in the Deep
<Figure 4> Another thing that Michael Carrick offers is that he is more tactically and defensively disciplined than, say, Darren Fletcher or Darron Gibson. As you can see from the diagram, he (no.16) and Scholes (18) were in very holding similar positions allowing Wayne Rooney to play with much success as a trequartista.
<Figure 5> Above shows Carrick’s positional discipline again, showing many of his touches of the ball in a deep position and his new roe as a deep-lying playmaker.
‘Heat Map’ and ‘Average Positions’ via ESPN GameCast
4. Covering large distances
<Figure 6> It is pleasing to see Michael Carrick, despite playing so deep, covering such vast distances on the pitch. In this game, we saw Carrick acting as cover for either Paul Scholes or one of the defenders. This isn’t a contradiction of the last point, either. He did stay deep but drifted whenever needed. This was, not just by observation, one of Michael Carrick’s best performances this season.
Distance Covered statistics courtesy of uefa.com
Double acts come in all shapes and sizes. You can have good ones; Batman and Robin or Morecambe and Wise for instance. On the other hand, you can have duos you’d rather not; Jedward or even Clegg and Cameron. The latest twosome, Rafael and Fabio da Silva, look like they fit in the category of the former.
With Luis Nani out until April (edit – he’s magically recovered!), the two who could possibly replace him comes in the shape of either, or both, of the twins. They were efficient, excellent even, against Arsenal in the recent Cup tie and look like they are able to deal with the monumental task of filling in for such a player.
Perhaps the timely return of Antonio Valencia from the sidelines makes up a touch for the loss of Nani. But, while the Ecuadorian recovers to full fitness and Nani kicks his heels in the medical room, it is crucial that Manchester United find someone else to step up and guide them through their difficult run-in. Park is unfit and Gabriel Obertan is out of favour – possibly, the duo can fill in a more offensive role than what they might be used to. Yet, there is every indication they can succeed on the flanks.
What epitomises the modern winger is to be able to adapt to situations. It isn’t just about switching flanks, however, and a player must be able cut in and to attack the box. Technique, touch and an eye for the pass takes you a long way, too. The Brazilians still have a long way to go yet and there is much about their game that is left to fine-tune.
Yet, as we’ve seen in the past when they have played as a full back, they have much energy and are prepared to bomb forward. You could argue that a stint as a winger would actually compliment their game. It is true that their defensive game needs a lot of work, and Rafael, as we’re all too familiar, is sometimes naïve and doesn’t particularly thrive under pressure from an opposing player. But, it is nature of the fool to dismiss. His defensive abilities will improve with gained experience so even if he or his brother fails to make the conversion to a winger for whatever reason, there are certainly no concerns of their future in the United defence. But they can potentially further their game higher up the field and become usefully versatile.
Against Arsenal, they did lack some positional discipline and sometimes went adrift in their new position – but the first goal in that game, where Rafael started the move from his own half which ended in a Fabio goal after much good interplay with his team mates, typified what we might come to expect from the two. And throughout, they showed great awareness of the players around them and switched seamlessly from defence to attack and from the flanks to central forwards at times. Their defensive qualities that they already possess will certainly help them tracking back if need be.
Rafael and Fabio are not alien to the midfield role. The latter was his national side’s top goalscorer playing as a left midfielder in the U-17 World Cup in 2007. He captained that side, too, for those asking for any more interesting details of that particular event. So, amidst the dreaded curse of injuries that have left United short on options, the deployment of these two might help alleviate that and perhaps the anticipated problems would be a blessing in disguise. For these two anyway…